How to Become a Police Officer – In 9 Easy Steps

A seemingly endless number of Hollywood movies detail the rigorous mental and physical training required to become a police officer.

Tactical scenario training rooms, shooting ranges, and obstacle courses, along with other basic training components, are not the fun and games portrayed in movies.

Police Officer

Instead, these are critical elements of police officer training that prepare candidates for real-life situations that officers must diffuse.

However, these elements only make up a small portion of the entire process to become a police or other law enforcement officer.

Police officers are public service employees who enforce and uphold the law.

If you’re enthusiastic about the law and interested in becoming a police officer, it’s important to learn the requirements.

Keep reading to find out!

Job Description

As law enforcement professionals who protect people and property by responding to emergencies and enforcing laws, there’s a specific set of duties required.

Depending on the rank, officers conduct various tasks to preserve order in society.

The most common job duties of a police officer include:

  • Conduct crime investigations.
  • File reports and complete other paperwork.
  • Follow a strict code of conduct.
  • Gather evidence.
  • Interview witnesses.
  • Inform suspects of their rights.
  • Issue traffic violation citations.
  • Monitor and attend events to ensure public safety.
  • Patrol and monitor specific areas based on jurisdiction.
  • Respond to emergency calls.
  • Testify in court.
  • Track and apprehend suspects.


The median U.S. annual police officer salary is $69,160, which varies greatly based on location, job type, experience, education, and other factors.

In addition to the base salary, officers have access to excellent physical and mental healthcare, since they work in hazardous environments, paid time off, and numerous other benefits.

Additionally, being a police officer is a government role, which commonly provides job security.

Salary Information by State

State Employed Avg. Annual Salary Avg. Hourly Pay Top 10% Annual Salary Bottom 10% Annual Salary
District of Columbia5,280$81,160$39.02$102,500$62,440
New Hampshire2,900$62,480$30.04$80,120$47,480
New Jersey20,510$90,520$43.52$128,360$51,110
New Mexico4,610$56,690$27.26$71,910$40,550
New York50,600$81,750$39.30$127,020$49,210
North Carolina20,480$51,310$24.67$70,240$37,230
North Dakota1,710$65,730$31.60$79,960$48,550
Rhode Island1,760$68,290$32.83$83,200$49,080
South Carolina11,640$49,490$23.79$65,250$36,250
South Dakota1,830$54,130$26.02$76,390$39,270
West Virginia3,190$48,310$23.23$59,520$37,070
Puerto Rico12,930$40,230$19.34$49,570$23,430

Annual Average Salary: Top 10 States

The top earning state in the field is California, where the average salary is $104,010.

These are the top 10 earning states in the field:

  • California - $104,010
  • Washington - $92,250
  • New Jersey - $90,520
  • Hawaii - $89,640
  • Alaska - $85,710
  • Illinois - $82,470
  • New York - $81,750
  • District of Columbia - $81,160
  • Colorado - $80,990
  • Oregon - $78,150
* Salary information based on the May 2022 Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey for Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers, OCC Code 33-3051, BLS.
* Employment conditions in your area may vary.

How to Become a Police Officer: Step-by-Step

Although the process of becoming a police officer may vary slightly based on town, city, and state, the general process includes:

Step One: Earn a High School Diploma

All states require police officers to have at least a high school diploma or GED.

If you’re currently in high school and want to become a police officer, it’s useful to take courses geared toward criminal justice, the law, gym classes, and weight training.

This will help strengthen your physical and mental abilities and legal knowledge.

Public speaking classes will also help improve your interpersonal skills to interact with the public.

Step Two: Meet the Minimum Requirements

In addition to earning a high school diploma, you must meet the minimum age and citizenship requirements.

To become a police officer, you must be a United States citizen with no criminal convictions and meet the minimum written and verbal English requirements.

Furthermore, a license is typically required for those who will be entering the force and driving a vehicle.

Step Three: Complete a Written Evaluation

The written examination is a requirement to pass for all candidates.

The focus of the examination is on basic abilities like mathematics, analytical skills, grammar, spelling, and reading comprehension.

This exam, along with completing Police Academy Training, provides that you have the aptitude to acquire knowledge and learn specific techniques relevant to daily police duties.

Examination preparation is available through online courses or by contacting the local police department to understand if additional materials and instruction are available.

Candidates can also practice basic English and math skills by memorizing equations and solving word problems.

Since English is such a highly regarded prerequisite, it’s essential to practice language skills as well.

Scoring well on this exam improves your chances of being selected after applying.

Step Four: Pass the Physical Fitness Examination

In addition to the written element of the application process, all candidates must also prove they’re physically fit for duty.

The test includes timed sit-ups, push-ups, and a run, which requires 300 meters in 70.1 seconds or less and 1.5 miles in under 15 minutes.

The vertical jump portion of the evaluation is to evaluate your agility.

Since the requirements are clearly stated, training for the physical fitness exam can be done at home by focusing on these areas.

A gym membership will help you train on professional equipment, or you can hire a personal trainer to meet your goals.

Daily runs also improve your speed and endurance while conditioning your body.

Step Five: Pass a Background Check

All government personnel must pass a background check, which requires an investigation into your history to determine if any criminal activity exists and filing your fingerprints.

If you are concerned with your criminal history then becoming a police officer may not be the right career choice.

Another aspect of your background check is your credit score, which gives the employer an idea of potential problems like gambling debts and your responsibility level.

The idea is police administration is going to dig deep into your business and history.

Senior-level officers advise candidates to never omit anything from the background packet because they will be eliminated from the program when it appears.

Gross misdemeanors and felonies automatically disqualify you from becoming a police officer, but less serious crimes can also be a problem.

For instance, any domestic violence-related incidents will kick you out of the process.

Speeding tickets and juvenile offenses are less likely to cause problems.

It’s also beneficial to contact teachers and other references who are considered character references.

Step Six: Take a Psychological and Medical Examination

Most states require candidates to pass a psychological and medical examination to prove they are fit for the job.

This comprehensive examination identifies underlying conditions that could impact your work as a police officer, thus jeopardizing your safety and the safety of your colleagues.

These examinations include a drug screen and physical from a departmental-approved physician.

Step Seven: Interview with an Employer

Once you’ve passed all the qualifying exams, you must interview with members of the Police Chiefs Association and the director.

The academy director typically determines the number of professionals who will interview you and review the results from all previous examinations.

You can prepare for the interview by memorizing practice interview questions and preparing thoughtful, detailed answers.

The questions are crafted to assess your character, morality, and motivations for becoming an officer.

When thinking of answers to these questions, consider that the purpose of a police officer is to protect and serve the public.

Step Eight: Complete Academy Training or a Degree

The requirements for step eight vary based on the state you’re planning to apply to. Some states simply require a high school diploma, while others require at least an associate degree.

Regardless of the education level requirement, all applicants must complete 22-week Police Academy training in their home state.

The purpose of the Police Academy is to provide cadets with foundational tools to become a functional officer in the field.

At the Academy, students develop specialized knowledge like weapons handling, legal requirements for investigations and searches, emergency medical care procedures, and how to conduct police duties.

Cadets also learn how to operate various departmental vehicles, community guidelines, law, and the criminal defense system.

Step Nine: Continuing Education

Once all steps have been completed, you can begin your career as a police officer.

While on the job, note the specialized areas you may need to learn about and enroll in specialized training.

Some states require minimum hours of continuing education within a specific period to continue working as an officer.

This is a good opportunity to dust off older skills you may not have used in a while, gaining updated training.

If you’re interested in advancing to management positions within the force, consider a degree in criminal justice or another law enforcement-related major.


All states require a minimum of a high school diploma to become a police officer.

Some states require an associate degree in a law enforcement-related field, which takes around two years.

Both options require time in the Police Academy, which provides firsthand training that helps candidates prepare for their daily functions in the field.

Police Academy training takes around 22 weeks, and not all candidates make it through the rigorous program.

Licensing & Certification

Law enforcement licensing requirements are deemed at the state, not Federal level.

Most states don’t require police officers to hold a license, but some are passing laws requiring police licensure.

For instance, New Jersey now requires all 40,000 of its law enforcement officers to hold an active license provided by the Police Training Commission.

This license must be renewed every three years.

Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the future job outlook of a police officer is around three percent, which is on par with the average of all U.S. occupations.

Like salaries, these statistics vary greatly based on location.

A small town in Nebraska may only have a few officers on duty to support the area.

A precinct in New York City may be in dire need of additional officers to support the local jurisdiction.

Should You Become a Police Officer

Overall Satisfaction

Police officers tend to be highly satisfied in their careers for many reasons.

First, they are compensated well with many benefits beyond salary.

Second, officers are constantly out walking around, getting fresh air, and exercising.

Also, many police departments have a gym on-site to keep officers in shape.

Third, the badge promotes competition, which helps boost performance.

Fourth, the fraternal relationship among law enforcement is strong. Fifth, there’s a powerful sense of pride in the community.

Finally, police officers are helping those who cannot often help themselves, so there’s an elevated level of job satisfaction.

On the downside, officers become cynical over the years because they are dealing with the worst of society.

Also, the career is highly stressful for many officers, especially those in big cities.

Furthermore, many officer’s energy and fuses become short due to long shift hours, exposure to negative human elements, and sleep deprivation.

Average Salary

The average salary of a police officer is around $69,000, which is $7,000 higher than the average U.S. salary.

Police officers make more because they are putting themselves in harm’s way to protect the public and resolve conflicts.

Job Growth Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics rates law enforcement jobs as growing at a three percent yearly rate, which is consistent with all other combined jobs.

Police officers have the benefit of retiring young, so the growth plus younger retirement helps ensure job security and future growth, especially in cities with population booms.

Education Duration

For those looking to become a police officer in states only requiring a high school diploma, the 22-week Police Academy training program is the required education duration.

Those who live in a state that requires an associate degree must commit to two years of education plus 22 weeks at the Academy.

However, those with an associate or four-year bachelor’s degree will move up the ranks faster due to their advanced educational background.

It’s helpful to enroll in a law enforcement-related program to gather foundational knowledge.

Personal Skills Needed

The most effective police offer doesn’t just refine the training received in the Academy, there are also plenty of required personal skills, such as:

  • Collaboration – police officers work with other law enforcement professionals to protect the community, so collaboration within teams is an essential skill.
  • Communication – speaking and written communication skills allow officers to share the law, and ideas, and understand others. Effective communication helps in interacting with the public to share protocols, gather information, and give direction.
  • Critical thinking – officers use critical thinking when monitoring areas and during investigations, as well as handling different scenarios with the public.
  • Interpersonal – interpersonal skills, like reliability, listening, and compassion, help officers assist others and put them at ease during stressful situations.
  • Legal knowledge – knowing the law is a crucial aspect of conducting an officer’s job duties.
  • Physical fitness – having strong physical fitness skills helps officers physically apprehend offenders and bring them into custody. Strength is beneficial for emergencies and endurance helps patrol areas.
  • Problem-solving – one of the purposes of the police is to solve problems for the public by identifying an issue and finding a resolution.
  • Weapon safety – all police officers carry protective weapons like a stun gun, mace, baton, and gun, so practicing weapon safety is paramount to the safety of all parties.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long do you have to go to school to become a police officer?

The educational requirement varies based on the state.

Those that only require a high school diploma will need to complete the 22-week Police Academy training.

Candidates in states that require an associate degree must take a two-year program, plus the 22-week Police Academy training.

Some officers hold a bachelor’s degree in a related field, which takes four years.

How much money does a police officer make a year?

The median annual income for an officer is $69,160 without benefits.

The salary is based on numerous factors like location, education, and experience.

What skills do you need to have to be a police officer?

Given that officers are constantly dealing with the public, administration, courts, and various other individuals and departments, a large number of skills are needed.

Communication, empathy, assertiveness, teamwork, active listening, conflict resolution, and interpersonal skills are required when dealing with the public, teams, and administrative staff.

Critical thinking, physical fitness, decision-making, attention to detail, adaptability, and mental agility are required when in the field, attempting to solve crimes.

Are police officers in high demand?

This depends on the location.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the job growth is three percent per year, so there is a need for police.

In cities and towns that are growing rapidly, the need for qualified police officers is higher than in cities with a stagnant population.

What kind of education do you need to be a police officer?

The educational requirement to become a police officer varies greatly between states.

Some states only require a high school diploma plus Police Academy training.

Other states require a minimum of an associate degree.

Currently, no states require a bachelor’s degree, but it is looked upon favorably and can help with rapid advancement through the department.

Many police officers have military experience, which further helps them meet the requirements since they may have been part of Military Police personnel or been in a leadership role.

Chelsea Wilson

About Chelsea Wilson

Chelsea Wilson is the Community Relations Manager for Washington University School of Law’s distance learning LLM degree program, which provides foreign trained attorneys with the opportunity to earn a Master of Laws degree from a top-tier American university from anywhere in the world.

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